Can we talk about Big Data?

As I read my title I’m hearing a big movie trailer echo voices saying “BIG DATAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH”.

I am trying to stay away from too political of a discussion here, but I want to discuss Big Data and the election in the USA last night. Pollsters, et al. (all early polling predictors wrapped into one) may have contributed to the events – with Clinton in the lead in many polls Trump supporters may have voted in larger numbers. With Clinton in the lead some voter suppression occurred in ‘key demographic areas’ (also a highly problematic idea). But, what I’d like to focus on instead is the lack of critical cultural engagement of those who design and predict early polls.

I know, critical cultural engagement discussion from a rhetorician, shocking……except not at all. To make sense of the world, I always look to the cultures that supported decisions:

the Greek cultures that developed democracy, early education, and theories of democracy were responding to all of human history at that time period in their effort to move toward citizen-led government. Rhetorical theory developed out of the need to help citizens lead themselves, each other, society not ‘capable’ of having a voice.

the founding fathers culture of taxation without representation led to the American Revolution founded again on Greek ideals of democracy AND eduction. Early American institutions taught rhetoric courses as foundational for education (and privileged women were taught so they could teach their sons, which empowered the Suffragettes to speak publicly, to teach others, and to attempt to create an inclusive woman’s movement – i’m reading idealistically, give me that today).

These aren’t history lessons, these are ways everyday lived cultural experiences shape the world we live in, the ways we think, and the ways we respond to situations. Both the Greeks and the Founding Fathers placed heavy emphasis on rhetorical education – the need for all citizens to understand how to communicate, how communication functions, how culture influences how communication is understood, and ‘proper’ approaches to public communication. Modern rhetorical theory that accounts for multimodality emphasizes the medium and the message as interdependent to sense making – the ease of creating tunnel vision on the internet is widely understood.

Ok, so what does this have to do with Big Data (BIG DATAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH). Well, everything. What the pollsters et al failed to do when analyzing their Big Data samples was account for cultural understanding and recent cultural movements when offering predictions for said data.

  1. Americans rarely vote for a President of the same party when an incumbent leaves – after Obama served 8 years the pollsters should’ve considered that the last back-to-back Democrats elected for President was 1856. Yes, that’s pre-Civil War America. We could argue about who should’ve been more aware of this Dems or Republicans, but in this case Big Data also lacks critical awareness of voting trends!
    1. Fun Fact – it was Buchanan who was elected, and he hails from PA!
  2. Brexit. Yes, Brexit. While Trump offhandedly compared his possible election to Brexit, this should’ve been a major concern to pollsters reading data (yes UK and USA political systems are vastly different – that’s not the comparison i’m making here). What is going on in elections across the world – who is voting and why? Was the UK/Brexit a direct predictor, no. The unlikelihood of consecutive Democratic Presidents was much more influential than Brexit – but Brexit should’ve indicated the deep unrest and unhappiness of voters in developed countries. Which should’ve then returned pollsters to #1 – when voters are unhappy they want change, the easiest change to make is change the party of the President.

Besides further explaining why English majors should be such a hot commodity because their education (similar to the education designed by the Founding Fathers) influences their critical thinking in all situations (have you tried watching a movie or TV show with a film major or rhetoric major – my husband can explain how much it sucks most of the time), new ways of looking at data would’ve shown some of the American cultural voting issues that predicted this win.

So Big Data – I task you with a simple quest – hire people who know how to think critically!  It’s obvious you will not be believed, assuming you even have a job for future elections, in predictions for future elections. I’ll suggest, rather boldly, English majors, but any Humanities degree would help you analyze information and not look like idiots after an election.


P.S. as of this writing, Clinton is ahead in popular votes 47.7% to 47.5%. This means neither candidate won at least 50% of the votes, which is also deeply important to understanding how to serve your constituency (I’m looking at you Trump – you now work for the people of the US you can’t fire anyone who says something you don’t like!).

P.P.S. if the Founding Fathers designed the electoral college to protect US democracy from overly popular candidates who did not have the best interest of the American population in mind, where are they today?

P.P.P.S. what happens when a candidate wins after proclaiming over and over and over and over and over again that the system was rigged? I really think all Americans, American media, and American politics need to look at who voted, who was suppressed, and how our country can address these ideas. The one thing we can all agree on – JOBS! Create jobs for people at all levels of the class system!


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